Conversations with My Chiropractor: Commuting With Books

Photograph by Sarah Lee

Photograph by Sarah Lee

Commuting is one of those modern evils that most of us have to endure each day.  For me, my trip to the office involves two trains and a bus, basically the gamut of all the horrors of public transport in South and West London.  To while away the anything from the hour to many hours of journey each way (depending on which hell the train companies have chosen to enact on any that day), reading is an escape from the overcrowded nightmare that my need to pay the bills, and book addiction, entails.  “Get yourself an eReader, Bone!” I hear you shout.  But when you feel that an e-book/e-reader is what Satan catches up with the classics on, the lugging of a tome or two around with you allows you to get closer to Sisyphus than you would usually want too.  Yet, thems the breaks, and the curvature of your spine, which I believe is directly proportional to the delays encountered.  The reading of a book on a train or tube (Subway for the TFL-uninitiated), is the bliss of escape and the bane of some of your other travellers.  For most London commuters, the modus operandi is to push onto the train, refuse to make eye contact with anyone and, heaven forbid, move or engage in any activity short of breathing, which is only allowed in the form of a sigh when a delay is announced.  The rise of the “mobile device” has changed this somewhat, but, I’m pleased to report, there are still old fashioned readers still among us on the rails of “Saff” London who laugh in the face of those who would deny us.  Or we would if there was space to laugh.  The readers of iPad and Kindles look upon us as the drivers of the first cars did those in pony and trap.  But, there is a joy when you are observed flicking back a few pages, or turning to maps and glossaries or annotations, with the ease that a big papery thing tied up with string gives you.  eBooks, while possibly the future, still have a way to go on that front, in this not so humble writer’s opinion.  But for all the advantages, there is the age old weight issue.  I remember being stopped at a customs check in Siberia during a work trip as my carry on bag looked too heavy.  I then had to explain in loud English and semaphore why my bag contained only a laptop and a 1st edition of Adrian Goldsworthy’s biography of Caesar, despite looking like I was smuggling gold bullion.  To be fair, if it had been Gogol or Tolstoy or gold for that matter, it would have saved the half hour bag search.  But the lugging of books is a time honoured and cherished pastime dating back to ancient times when Cicero was stopped at the border of Macedonia with nothing but a toga and a stack of scrolls while fleeing Rome.  I would guess he had a man doing the lugging, but still, the customs official must have given him the same look I got in Russia.  Recently, my back has had to endure the torment of two books my brain delighted in, Peter Frankopan’s stunning history The Silk Roads and Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carre.  Both are stunning reads and highly recommended, yet both weight a figurative tonne (or a literal 1.1 Kgs for the Frankopan and 1.2 kgs for the Sisman).  So, the solution I find, and my back Cracker would approve of, is counter balancing one’s reading.  For every history of the 1839 invasion of Afghanistan (Return of a King, William Dalrymple – 1.17 Kgs) or romp through “being paid by the line” excellence of 19th Century Paris (The Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas – 1.1 Kgs), you’ll need something to take the strain off, if not intellectually, then at least your lower back.  Here are five of my favourite back savers.

Flashman – George MacDonald Fraser (210 grams in paperback or 341 grams in my 1970 book club hardback).  When Thomas Hughes clearly realised that his moralistic story of Tom Brown was leaning too heavily to the far more interesting Harry Flashman, he wrote him out of the story and history.  Until that is, George MacDonald Fraser “discovered” Flashman’s memoirs in an estate sale and published them, starting in 1969.  Flashy is not a sympathetic character and while he does, as a rogue and toady would, commit some terrible acts in trying desperately to save his own skin during the 1842 Retreat from Kabul, the tale is wonderful and the anti-types of the hero of historical fiction beautifully tweaked by Fraser.  See The Classic – Flashman by me.


Vile Bodies – Evelyn Waugh (201 grams in my Penguin Classic).  Waugh must have been one of those mates that is always at the fringe of the party and later telling tall tales of what happened.  The fact he managed to keep any of his friends is incredible, but his tales of The Bright Young Things of London town is as wonderful now as it was when first published.  Basically it’s the tale of a writer who has had his manuscript taken by customs and is desperate for cash while surrounded by people with piles of it.  It is wonderful, as is Stephen Fry’s adaptation of it, Bright Young Things.

The Outsider – Albert Camus (104 grams of Penguin’s finest).  Ok, we’ve gone snooty and existential, but if you haven’t given this tale a go, you are missing out.  Camus’ most famous work tells the tale of a colonial Frenchman who kills the man who may or may not have been having an affair with his friend’s girlfriend.  Frankly, I’m still not sure what the hell is going on and I’ve read it a few times now.  But the absurdity of it all and the mental state of Meursault is fascinating to delve into.

Good Omens– Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman (a whopping 213 grams).  The heaviest book in my five but one that is worth easily double the weight in laughs alone.  The tale of an Angel and Demon given one simple task, deliver the Anti-Christ to the right parents, and the results of them failing to do so, is a work of unparalleled genius from two geniuses in their own right.  I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but isn’t it just a wonderful book?

I Am Legend – Richard Matheson (150 grams all in).  I have read I Am Legend more time than I can count.  I also watched the adaptations more times than I probably should (in order of goodness interestingly is in the order they were made: The Last Man On Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971) and I Am Legend (2007)).  The tale of Robert Neville while he survives the pandemic that turns everyone to vampire-types and then tries to cure, then kill, those infected is just an incredible emotional roller coaster.  I stand by the fact that I believe I Am Legend has the best closing three paragraphs of any modern book.  Fact.


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